Ecstatic Angola leave behind the ravages of war

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The Independent Football

By the time the aircraft shuddered to a halt in Luanda, hundreds had broken through the flimsy security cordon, fired shots in the air and stormed on to the runway. The cabin door opened and all hell broke loose.

Four years after the end of nearly three decades of civil war in Angola, this was a country celebrating like never before. This ravaged country on the south-west coast of Africa, which fell into bloody conflict after independence in 1975, will dine at football's top table at the World Cup next year. "We have proved that Angola is not just about oil, war and poverty," said their captain and primary goal-poacher, Akwa.

Qualification was only confirmed in their final group match, a squeaky-bum encounter in Rwanda on 8 October, when the decisive goal came with the referee looking at his watch. But Angolans had been confident of their fate since coming from behind to hold the continent's traditional powerhouse Nigeria 1-1 away in June. That took them to the summit of their group, on goal difference, and they never looked down.

They may arrive home from Germany next year before the postcards but, ranked 62nd in the world, they are one spot behind Scotland and ahead of Slovenia, Chile, Latvia, Wales and Northern Ireland. They may have had a tougher qualifying group than England, too.

Playing away in Africa can be life-altering; one South African player told me that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the police standing guard on the side of the field did not like the way the visitors were faring and levelled their guns at the players. "We lost that game... I think you can understand why," he said.

Angola did not resort to such outside help. Their qualification was built on a watertight defence and a passionate crowd. Of their 12 matches they won four 1-0 and did not concede a goal in eight. Traditionally, African sides leak goals at the back, yet resilience was a feature of their campaign.

But in African football you are rarely far away from a scandal. The inspirational left-back Yamba Asha tested positive for a banned substance in Rwanda and was suspended, pending the result of his second sample. If found guilty by Fifa, the 29-year-old with 49 caps may miss the finals.

Though qualifying was unexpected, there had been signs of Angola emerging as a credible force after the sacking of their Brazilian coach Ismael Kurtz and the hiring of Luis Oliveira Goncalves in November 2003.

Goncalves drew up a master- plan. The country did not have a First Division structure worth its name, so "The Professor", as he is known, went to Portugal and started trawling for talent.

The Portuguese leagues have an abundance of Angolans in the lower divisions, and Goncalves meticulously sought them out. From such humble beginnings, including a 3-1 qualifying defeat in Chad, Angola began to believe.

At Benfica he found the striker Mantorras, while elsewhere were players like Figueirido, Joao Pereira, Maurito and Ze Kalanga.

There was immediate success: a 2-0 home win against Chad, then a goalless draw in Algeria and a 1-0 win over Nigeria at Luanda's Cidadela stadium. So Angola, not Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal or South Africa, carry a torch for Africa in Germany. Having overcome the ravages of a 27-year-old civil war, taking on the big guns in the World Cup will not strike fear in any hearts.

Sceptics feel they are making up the numbers, but ask Manchester United about the talent in Portugal. In the former colony they may have unearthed a gold mine to light up the World Cup.

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